Sweet Potato

At lunch time, behind the school, Con and his mates used to dig up sweet potatoes.

“We gave the big ones to the nuns, but us kids would eat the small ones, raw. They were sweet and juicy.”

Con went to the Good Counsel Convent school in Innisfail, run by the Good Samaritan Sisters (the Good Sammies, as they were affectionately known.) The red volcanic soil of Innisfail is ideal for growing sweet potatoes, but they’ll grow happily anywhere in Queensland, if there’s warmth, soft soil and good rain. They’re a staple across the South Pacific. They flourished in Nambour, too: in my family’s backyard.

Our yard, on a then new sub-division on Mapleton Road, sloped down towards a farm with a bull paddock. The fence was flimsy. Once, when plumbers were working on our septic tank, they occupied their smoko time with teasing the bull. My mother watched out the bedroom window, expecting the bull to break through the fence at any moment and chase the plumbers up the slope. She was disappointed when it didn’t happen.

“I’d have liked to see them trying to run up that slope, catching their feet in the sweet potato vines,” she said.

In Con’s tropical Innisfail yard there were banana plants, papaws, mangoes, passionfruit vines and citrus trees. It’s still the same in the North.

Citrus growing by the beach, Tully Heads
Loaded mango tree outside the police station in Chillagoe, west of Cairns

Our garden in Nambour, a 1500 km drive south and officially in the sub-tropics, had bananas and papaws, too, and also loquats, guavas, rosella plants, a mulberry bush and a big mango tree, left over from farm days. Across the state, a group of fine old mango trees, Moreton Bay figs and hoop pines often indicates that a farmhouse once stood there.

Mango tree flourishing beside a derelict farmhouse, Babinda

In Nambour, we never got to eat our guavas, because we would forget about them until we could smell the fruit. By then, it was too late – they’d be full of fruit fly grubs.

There was a flourishing choko vine on our fence. I haven’t eaten chokos since Mum used to cook them, serving them in white sauce to give them some flavour.

In these days of supply chain problems, we should all have a choko vine along the fence, along with all the other fruits and veggies that grow so well in Queensland.

Bananas growing beside a West End house

Sadly, in old migrant suburbs like West End, because of high property values and the move towards denser housing, many fine backyard fruit and vegetable gardens are disappearing.

Papaws, West End

The Sunshine Coast hinterland north of Brisbane is perfect for growing tropical fruits and citrus in the backyard. In our Woodford yard, as well as an old mango tree there were macadamias, lemons, bananas, and a large custard apple tree of the bullock heart variety.

Looking from under our Woodford mango tree towards the custard apple tree. In the background are macadamias and bananas

Huge productive avocado trees grow almost wild in Maleny backyards.

Dragon fruit vines smother Brisbane gum trees and loaded passionfruit vines festoon suburban fences; but the biggest passionfruit vine I ever saw was growing over the toilet block in the yard of the Silkwood Hotel, north of Tully. It provided shade over people enjoying a drink in the beer garden, and masses of fruit; possibly nourished by the septic tank.

In the beer garden of the Silkwood Hotel, under that enormous passionfruit vine

We tend to take all this splendid bounty for granted, since it grows in spite of us and requires no care. Fruits that are rarities in cold climate countries are part of our everyday environment in much of Queensland, and visitors are amazed by them. When taking a drive around the Glasshouse Mountains with overseas visitors we stopped beside a pineapple farm with its neat rows of plants and young, green pineapples. Pines, as we used to call them. Our German friend looked at them in amazement. “So that’s how they grow!” he said.

“Mixed Farm with Sunflowers, Glasshouse Mountains”, painted by Anne Marie Graham

I feel the same amazement when I visit Europe and see apple trees in fruit, hanging over people’s garden walls, or when I look at photos of my granddaughter picking apples in her Opa’s Berlin garden.

Picking apples in a Berlin garden

In York, U.K., in my friend’s wintery garden there was an enormous pear tree. It had one yellow pear still hanging on it on, metres above the ground. I’d had no idea that pear trees grew so big, and that you could just grow them in your back yard.

That big Nambour mango tree is long gone now, making way for brick and concrete; and in the old bull paddock there is a sprawl of houses. I’d be willing to bet sweet potato vines are still flourishing somewhere nearby, though.

When I first had a meal at my future mother-in-law Min’s house in Innisfail she said, “Do you like sweet potato?”

I didn’t, but of course I said yes. From then on, it was always on the menu when we ate there.

Years later when we visited, Min, now elderly, looked exhausted.

“What have you been doing, Mum?” Con asked.

“Well, I didn’t have any sweet potato, and I know Rose loves it, so I walked into town to buy some,” she replied.

A kilometre each way in the tropical heat.

It wasn’t the right time to tell her the truth. That time never came.

Every now and then I buy sweet potatoes, in Min’s memory, and put them in the potato basket and forget about them. By the time I notice them again they have sprouted, so I throw them out in the garden to rot away and nourish the soil.

Thrown-out sweet potato that won’t die

They don’t rot, though; they keep growing until I trip over the vines.

Passionfruit vine growing over a telephone booth, Bingil Bay

Road Trip to Ingham

Wet season, Ingham, 2021. The Herbert River overflowed repeatedly, spreading across the flat country around the town, flooding houses and cane fields. Opened in January, a Facebook page, “Ingham floods 2021”, gained 3.7 thousand members and in April was still posting updates on floods.

Herbert River flooding the highway north of Ingham, 2009 versatel.ebc.net.au

This was nothing new. Ingham, 112 kilometres north of Townsville and one of North Queensland’s most prosperous towns, has been flooded in seven of the last ten years. The Herbert River catchment runs off the southern Atherton Tablelands and its tributaries pick up water from 9,000 square kilometres of high rainfall country.

Ingham is where luxuriant tropical scenery begins, north of the drier country around Townsville: sugar cane, green hills, creeks. It’s always green here, on the edge of the Wet Tropics.

Rainforest fruits, Jourama, Paluma Range National Park

“Did I tell about my first visit to Ingham?” I ask Con as I clean the windscreen. He is filling up with fuel at the service station on Ingham’s main street, the one we’ve been stopping at for years on our journeys north.

“Don’t think so,” he says over the sound of the pump.

“I was sixteen, on a camping road trip from South Queensland with my family, and we stopped here for the night so Dad could visit an old army mate. Dad had old army mates all over the state. We got to Ingham in the middle of a downpour. The river was flooding. The caravan park was awash.”

Con goes to pay for the fuel, and I finish cleaning the back windscreen.

“Anyway,” I continue as we pull out into the traffic, “Dad’s army mate invited us to spend the night. It was great. A big, comfortable house, dry beds and tropical fruit for breakfast: that’s what Ingham means to me. It was such a relief to get out of the wet.”

For Con, growing up in Innisfail, torrential rain was part of life.

“Floods were fun for us kids,” he says. “Floods meant swimming in your own backyard and not having to wear shoes to school.”

We’re on the Bruce Highway, passing through cane fields on the flat country north of Ingham, and as we cross the Herbert River, Con tells me a story of driving to Ingham when he was young. I like his dramatic stories of growing up in FNQ.

Wallaman Falls, Ingham wettropics.gov.au

“Mum, Jim and I drove through here at Easter the year I turned fourteen, in Jim’s 1939 Ford, heading south from Innisfail to Townsville. My brother Jim was driving trucks when he was seventeen, delivering fuel to cane farmers around Innisfail on narrow, unsealed roads and through flooded creeks, so the fact that it was pouring rain when we set off didn’t worry us. We were Innisfailites – we had webbed feet.

“There was a minor concern, though: the car had a slow leaking radiator. Every few miles, we would have to refill it with water; but there were plenty of creeks along the way. At Moresby, only eight miles south of Innisfail, we stopped for the first time and I was sent over to the river with a bucket to bring back water for the radiator. Jim poured it in while the engine was running then screwed down the cap. We set out again. 

 “The rain kept up, and I kept scouting for water. The road was mainly bitumen, a bit patchy, and the car was high enough off the ground to manage the washouts and the water running across it.

 “Just out of Cardwell, on a stretch of road awash with sand and water, we met a tiny Triumph sports car. The driver was travelling alone, and he asked us what conditions were like further up the road. He didn’t like what we told him – torrential rain and creeks running across the roads – but he pointed the little car’s nose to the north and kept going.

“We filled the radiator again at the bottom of the Cardwell Range and made it to the top, and then Jim checked the temperature gauge. We needed water again, and soon.

 “On the way down the other side, we prayed for a creek. We came to one, all right – ten metres below the road, with scrub-covered cliffs leading down to it. No chance of getting water there. Going downhill was easier on the engine, though; and at the bottom of the range, we found another creek, and I did my job with the bucket again.

 “There were no more hills between there and Townsville, so we thought our troubles were over. But north of Ingham, and with still over 120 kilometres to travel, we came out on to the Herbert River flood plain. There were road works. It was chaos. 

“The bitumen had disappeared, leaving churned-up mud. Cars were buried up to their axles on the sides of the road, and farmers were trying to pull them out with tractors.”

“You know, people complain about the state of the Bruce Highway, and it’s true you can never drive the length of it, 1700 kilometres from Brisbane to Cairns, without being held up by road works. But what a lot of improvements we’ve seen over the years! I’ll always stick up for the Bruce.”

Con continues his story.

“I looked at Jim. He clenched his hands around the steering wheel and set the car on the safest course he could find through that madness of mud, bogs, cars and tractors, until we were once again on bitumen, and Ingham was only a few miles ahead.

“We made it through to Townsville a couple of hours later. They hadn’t had the heavy rain we’d come through, thank God. Townsville is a dry old dump.”

Country towns can have such disdain for one another. But of course, so can big cities. Sydney and Melbourne, for instance.

 “At a garage in Hermit Park, Jim bought a can of Radiator Cement. It plugged up the holes, and on the way home a few days later we didn’t need to fill it once. The sun shone, and the muddy stretch north of Ingham had hardened. The old Ford charged over the Range, and at Cardwell we bought fish and chips, as we always did, and ate them sitting in the car on the oceanfront. By mid-afternoon, in bright sunshine, we were home in Innisfail.

“The next day on my way to school I saw the Triumph sports car driving down Rankin Street. He’d made it through. A gutsy effort. But so was ours.”

“Good story! Let’s stop in Cardwell for fish and chips.”

We’ve had lots of good Ingham experiences. Our Lizzie and Russ lived there for a time in the late 1990s, and we stayed with them in their typical North Queensland house.

Russ and Lizzie’s house in Ingham

Lizzie took me down to Lucinda, the nearby sugar port famous for its jetty, 5.76kms long. Near the beach is a large sign describing some of the creatures that can kill you if you go swimming there.

Sign by the water at Lucinda

We went by boat across to rugged, mysterious Hinchinbrook Island for a walk along the beach and swim in Mulligan’s Falls.

Descendants of the migrants that flocked to the cane fields in the twentieth century have given Ingham its distinctive Italian culture. Every year, the Australian Italian Festival is held here. Lou’s Italian Deli in the main street of Ingham is a wonder to behold.

Just south of town is the TYTO Wetlands, with paths and walkways for birdwatching and the impressive Information Centre and Regional Art Gallery.

TYTO Wetlands, Ingham

Spectacular to see, in this richest of all sugar cane areas, is the vast Victoria Mill, with its kilometres of cane trains and lines of cane bins, its huge old rain trees and tall, steaming chimneys.

With Joe and Isabel, two years ago, we drove further south to visit Jourama, part of the lush and spectacular Paluma Range National Park, and swam with turtles and eels in beautiful Waterview Creek.

Swimming at Waterview Creek

Instead of just stopping for petrol and hurrying on, I’d like to get to know Ingham better; to visit Wallaman Falls, Australia’s tallest single-drop waterfall, and maybe have a beer at Lees Hotel, which claims to be the original “Pub With No Beer”.

We’ll visit in the Dry Season, though, when the weather up here is perfect.

I don’t have webbed feet.

Ingham floods 2018 nine.com.au

Cairns

I’m walking along the Cairns Esplanade, past the hospital. It’s a classic tropical scene with coconut palms, figs trees and lush plantings. The tide is out, and beyond a narrow strip of sand, mud stretches two hundred metres out to the waterline. Sea birds stalk on their long legs and webbed feet, pecking for worms and crabs. A blue sky is reflected in patterns of mud and water, and the calm sea behind gleams like pewter, right across Trinity Bay to the forests of the Yarrabah Range.

D39C46BE-AFC8-41F4-A8A7-DE5B186AF171
Trinity Bay, Cairns, from the Esplanade

Opposite the hospital, a man in a yellow work vest stops me. “There’s a helicopter coming in,” he says. “It won’t take long, but we need to keep people away from the helipad for a few minutes.”

I stand with other walkers and watch. I hadn’t noticed before, but there is a helipad set into the broad grassy parkland across the road from the hospital buildings. “That’s strange,” I say to the man in the yellow vest. “Usually hospital helipads are on the roof of the hospital.”

“They can’t do that here,” he replies. “It’s too close to the flight path from the airport.”

Guards have stopped cyclists on the bike track, too. Across the road, in the hospital entrance, another uniformed man, wearing earmuffs, waits beside a wheeled stretcher. I hear a helicopter coming in from the west, and soon it lowers itself on to the helipad. It’s a large Queensland Government Air rescue helicopter.

cairns helicopter 3
The Queensland Government Air Rescue Helicopter ready to evacuate a patient from a remote property to Cairns Hospital

Crew in navy blue uniforms climb out of the helicopter as the traffic is stopped and the stretcher is brought across the road from the hospital. A middle-aged man in a high-vis work shirt and straggly goatee beard is loaded on, sitting propped up as he is wheeled back to the hospital.

The helicopter takes off, the men in yellow vests disappear, and we all continue our walking, jogging or cycling along the Esplanade as if nothing had happened.

cairns hospital
Jogger passing Cairns Hospital helicopter pad

Cairns Hospital services a huge geographical area, most of it wild and sparsely populated. Patients are transported here from as far away as Croydon, over five hundred kilometres to the west, from Thursday Island, eight hundred kilometres to the north, and even further. From here, patients requiring the most complex care are transferred to Brisbane, eighteen hundred kilometres south. The hospital can provide up to five hundred beds, making it a major regional facility. And its windows offer a view of palm trees and the Coral Sea.

I’ve been a patient here myself. Years ago, Con and I lived at Yarrabah Aboriginal Community, as it was known then, a forty-five-minute drive from Cairns. I’d worked hard one day hacking at the guinea grass and weeds that grew along the creek running by our house, and went to bed as usual that evening; but by next morning I was unconscious, and Con drove me urgently to the emergency department here at Cairns. At four o’clock that afternoon I woke up in the Intensive Care ward, startled by the sight in the next bed of a man wrapped completely in plaster and bandages, his limbs in hoists. He’d been in a plane crash.

While I’d been unconscious, I’d had an encephalogram and a lumbar puncture. The doctors concluded that I’d been bitten by some unknown tropical insect and had had a nasty response.

For the following twelve months I suffered debilitating attacks of vertigo, and it still troubles me from time to time. In North Queensland, it’s not just obvious things like crocodile attacks and jellyfish stings that can hurt you.

Con is a North Queenslander by birth. A tropical plant, as I tell him. He was born in Innisfail, an hour’s drive south of Cairns.

“Did you come to Cairns much when you were a kid?” I ask him.

“Sometimes. We’d come up here in the old man’s Ford ute, to rugby league games.”

“I didn’t know your dad was involved with rugby league.”

“Yes, he was president of Innisfail Rugby League Club for a while. League was strong there.”

Rugby league is strong everywhere in Queensland, but in regional areas there’s a special enthusiasm. In Townsville, in recent mayoral elections, an informal vote had an extra name pencilled on to the voting slip, with a “1” in the box and next to it, “Johnathan Thurston”, then star of the North Queensland Cowboys.

cairns thurston
Ballot paper, Townsville mayoral elections

cairns thurston 2
Johnathan Thurston, North Queensland Cowboys

Cairns has always been a lively place, both busy regional centre and tourist hotspot, the best-known place to come if you want to visit the Great Barrier Reef. As an American woman said to me at Uluru, “I went to Cairns first, then here. The Reef and the Rock – that’s all I want to see in Australia. I’m off home now.”

We’ve stayed in many parts of Cairns over the years, but the north-western stretch of the Esplanade (the ‘Nade to locals) is my favourite – beyond the tourist restaurants and biggest hotels, across the road from the seaside parklands and within walking distance of the centre of town. Towards Trinity Inlet and the cruise boat terminals is the spectacular swimming lagoon, built to relieve the frustrations of locals and tourists who find themselves beside the sea on a hot day, but unable to swim in it because of the mud – and the crocodiles.

cairns lagoon
Cairns Esplanade Lagoon

The tropical plantings along Shield Street and Abbott Street are lush and beautiful, and it’s a treat to wander through Rusty’s Bazaar markets, with its tropical produce and hippy vibe; but I avoid the cheerless souvenir shops selling nothing made in Cairns, or even in Australia.

cairns_rustys-markets_own
Rusty’s Bazaar

More interesting are the renowned Cairns Botanic Gardens at Edge Hill, the Tanks Arts Centre now occupying the old fuel tanks tucked in behind the hill during the war, and Centenary Lakes, with its boardwalks and walking tracks and a wonderful, wild Nature Playground.

cairns tanks
Tanks Arts Centre

Joe, like his father, is a tropical plant, born in Townsville and just ten days old when we moved to Yarrabah. I’ll never forget the day we first drove over the range and down the steep descent into the town, stopping at the lookout to admire the view over Mission Bay to Fitzroy Island. The Yarrabah Range is covered in rainforest. It is beautiful, and the road is steep. Here and there beside the road are large stones, known as handbrakes, which can be used to put behind the wheels of your car if you break down halfway up the hill. Occasionally a cassowary strolls out of the forest and across the road.

In Yarrabah, we lived in a Queensland government residence, with a view out to sea, the steep, forested hillside behind us, and the sound of a waterfall close by. It was a tropical paradise; although for the local people life was, and is, often hard. I would drive to Cairns once a fortnight, to do the banking and grocery shopping, and I always took little Joe with me, to visit Rusty’s Bazaar and eat icecream on the Esplanade. Now Joe lives in the north, and he takes his own children to Cairns, to play in the waterpark and watch the birds on the mudflats.

It’s amazing what a pull this place has, with its brooding greenery and humid tropical air, its rain-forested hillsides and calm sea. If you were born a local, or even spend a few years here, it has the atmosphere of home.

I can recommend the hospital, too.

cairns cent lakes
Boardwalk, Centenary Lakes, Cairns

Brisbane Gardens

 

My neighbour has a Bali garden: outdoor rooms, statues, tropical vegetation.

Across the road, there’s a bare front yard: grass, a couple of shrubs. The old bloke living there digs weeds out of his lawn with a dinner fork, and he hates trees.

Lots of people hate trees. Dirty, dangerous things, trees.

Version 2

Up the street, there’s a place that’s been landscaped in the popular Tuscan style: clipped shrubs, citrus in pots, a lavender hedge of sorts. Lavender doesn’t flourish in a sub-tropical climate.

A new, box-shaped house in the next street has geometrical-leafed plants to suit its style: pointed mother-in-law’s tongues and spiky yukka. Is there any imported plant more ubiquitous than the yukka? It’s not only because it suits the geometrical look; it’s also because yukka thrives without any attention in dry conditions and severe heat. It’s the only plant that survives in the blazing sunlight reflected off brickwork outside my eastward-facing front door.

IMG_20180327_151010_resized_20180327_031121700

Myself, I have a mainly native garden, designed to attract birds and butterflies, with birdbaths and local plants: callistemon, wattle, banksia, native groundcovers. I live in a 1970s house, and this was the style of the time.

 

Gardens vary as fashions change. Gladioli were plants of the 1950s, when the post-war suburban delight in all things prosperous and showy brought about a flourishing on speciality plant and flower breeding.

I’ve never liked gladioli, with their lack of scent and lurid colouring. At a Barry Humphries show in the late 1960s, Edna Everage threw plastic gladioli into the audience and told us to hold them erect and make them quiver. They were for her a symbol of “refined” suburbia.

Before that period, during the Great Depression and the War and earlier, what I think of as “cuttings” gardens flourished in the spreading urban areas.  Up and down any street, the same varieties of geranium, coleus, bougainvillea, bromeliad and frangipani demonstrated that people were sharing their plants, not buying them in nurseries the way we do today. Garden design was an economical, amateur matter. Roma Street Parklands uses many of the plant types used in those old-fashioned Brisbane gardens.

IMG_6563

These days, busy modern home-owners like low-maintenance, landscape-designed gardens. Lawn is of a carefully-chosen, manageable variety, and nothing gets overgrown, which is a pity.

I walk the streets of Brisbane every week of the year, and what delights me most is to see a garden with a gnarled old frangipani tree dropping fragrant blooms over a battered picket fence, or purple bougainvillea scrambling high into a backyard tree. You can keep your tidy yukkas and clipped hedges. And especially, you can keep your mother-in-law’s tongues. I’m a mother-in-law, and I don’t like the implication.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑